Cardinal Murphy O'Connor in a public lecture in his own Cathedral in 2008 spoke about the the fashionable atheism of the late 20th and early 21st century as a reaction against attempts made by Christian apologists in the post-reformation era to demonstrate proofs of the existence of God, with certainty grounded in reason and experience. The Parisian Jesuit theologian, Joseph Moingt, interviewed several years ago, in his early nineties, attributed the rise of atheism to the authoritarian denial by the Catholic Church of the growing body of observational evidence about the universe calling into question the church's established dogma, offered by enquiring men of faith such as Galileo and Copernicus. Authority asserting itself in the face of the fact, lost its credibility in the eyes of many reasonable people – not only in the realm of science, but also in the real of social justice and equity.
From their different perspectives as a representative of the highest authority on the one hand, and as a seasoned loyal critic of the establishment on the other, come two complementary accounts of the prevalence of atheism in the popular imagination today. Both in their way concern the nature of certainty, and what happens when prevailing certainties no longer satisfy. Both observers would agree that certainty and faith are quite disparate attitudes, and that God's existence and relationship to humankind is not a matter of certainty but of faith – faith understood as loving trust, an attitude of openness, of confidence, of belief yet without excluding doubt and questions about the subject of belief.
Atheism for some is a conclusion of certainty, based on their experience, observation and reasoning. Yet, all these modes of engagement rely upon a belief which places faith in the capacity of humanity alone and unaided (except by each other) to understand the world and the meaning and purpose of life. Atheism places ultimate faith in the abilities of humankind, for better or for worse, to make the best of the life of which humans are conscious, without wanting to imagine that there is anything else to take into account when considering what existence is.
Atheism is a 'faith position' as worthy of respect, as it may be worthy of sensible criticism. It may be held and practised in a way that is morally no better nor worse than the way any religious believers behave. Both can act with nobility and justice, or in overbearing, arrogant and dogmatic ways in maintaining their positions. Both can be cruel, unjust, unscrupulous and in denial of the truth in the face of challenges. Atheists condemn religious believers for the violence of crusades, inquisitions, pogroms and holy wars unwisely in the light of the French revolution's reign of terror, Stalin's purges, Mao's 'Cultural Revolution', or Pol Pot's killing fields. The fact that people are so readily reduced to violence, calling their morality into question gives rise to even more profound questions about humanity, regardless of what people believe or don't believe.
Whatever happens observably in human behaviour to illustrate equal ability of people to do either good or evil things, regardless of their beliefs poses questions about what motivates them to think and act the way they do. However simple and straightforward may be the reasons given for acting in one way or another, the question of what underlies the reasoning, what drives people to think and act in a certain way never recedes. Humans strive restless for reasons, for meaning in actions. It is a much more complex and elusive question to address. People are not reducible to simplicities without destroying their true wealth of characteristics as human beings.
Humans are complex in what makes them act and think the way they do, taken as a snapshot at any given point in time. They also change and continue to change in response to their circumstances and in response to their own reactions to and reflections upon circumstances, constantly adjusting to the dynamic flow of life. All human attempts at self observation, however disciplined they may be, fail to be totally objective, because the observer cannot be totally detached from the subject. The fact that humans are self-aware, the fact that such self awareness can be denied and ignored, both out of choice and necessity adds to the way a complete picture of being human eludes us.
The ancient fathers of the Church used the word ‘mystery’ not to denote a puzzle in search of a solution, but to indicate the inexhaustible source of meanings to be found in exploring the subject of faith and human nature. To speak of the mystery of our humanity is to rejoice in complexity and elusiveness, and to be ever open to new discovery about our selves and our consciousness.